OTTAWA – The Liberals in the Senate are trying to trigger special parliamentary hearings in the hopes of forcing the prime minister’s former top aide and others to testify about a secret $90,000 payment to a Tory senator.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan was expected to argue later Tuesday that Stephen Harper’s office violated the sacrosanct privileges of parliamentarians, and may well be in contempt of Parliament.
Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright gave Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to pay off improper housing expenses earlier this year. Wright resigned Sunday, and Duffy quit the Tory caucus on Thursday, after the details began to emerge.
After that payment from Wright, Duffy stopped co-operating with an audit into his expenses, and sources say a Senate report into his claims was stripped of some of its most critical language. Liberals on the Senate committee on internal economy, which sits in secrecy, voted against the report in protest.
Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton declared the matter closed two weeks ago.
Cowan is arguing that the executive branch interfered in the proceedings of the Senate committee tasked with studying Duffy’s expense claims.
If Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella finds there appears to be a breach of parliamentary privilege, he could send the issue to a special committee for further study. Such a Senate committee would enjoy the privilege of summoning any witness it wants on the matter, including Wright or others from Harper’s office.
CTV News reported Monday that a legal adviser inside Harper’s office also reviewed the transaction between Wright and Duffy. That adviser, Benjamin Perrin, issued a statement Tuesday denying that he consulted on or participated in the transaction.
Harper’s office also insisted there was no agreement between Wright and Duffy, and that as a result no documentation of such a deal exists. But no one has yet provided a full explanation of what transpired between the two men.
The ethics commissioner is reviewing the matter, but the Senate ethics officer has not commented. The Conflict of Interest Code for Senators prohibits gifts to senators of more than $500.